Critics might argue that if the Chicago Cubs’ offseason were a tree falling in an unpopulated forest, it would not make a sound. The Cubs have not made a major splash in free agency like the Seattle Mariners did when they signed former Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten-year, $240 million contract; or the Yankees did when they penned former Braves’ catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $55 million deal. Nor have the Cubs made a major trade like the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers did when they swapped all-stars Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler. However, the Cubs have made four below-the-radar acquisitions this off-season that should help bolster their chances of flirting with .500 in year three of President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project.
Left-handed hitting catcher George Kottaras, 30, who played with the Kansas City Royals last season, signed with the Cubs for one year and is under club control through 2015. He replaces the departed Dioner Navarro and will complement the right-handed slugging and starter Welington Castillo. Kottaras sports a career .214 average, but his production against right-handed pitching portends favorably as a spot starter and late-inning replacement for Castillo.
In 647 plate appearances against righties, Kottaras has a .324 on-base-percentage (OBP) and .406 slugging percentage in addition to 40 doubles, 29 home runs and 96 RBI. He also brings familiarity with the NL Central, having played with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2010 through 2012.
The Cubs also swapped Brian Bogusevic, a left-handed hitting outfielder, with the Miami Marlins for right-handed hitting outfielder Justin Ruggiano. The Cubs’ starting outfield is tentatively set with RF Nate Schierholtz, CF Junior Lake and LF Ryan Sweeney. Schierholtz and Sweeney, both left-handed hitters, have produced significantly better against right-handed pitching and have struggled against southpaws. Bogusevic’s career average against left-handed pitching is a woeful .147. Thus, the Cubs needed to add a right-handed hitting complement to their outfield contingent for days when they will be facing a left-handed starting pitcher.
The five-year veteran of the Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, Ruggiano, 31, is the perfect antidote. In 353 career plate appearances against left-handed pitching, he has averaged .256 with a .328 OPB and gaudy .506 slugging percentage. He has blasted 17 homer runs and 26 doubles and driven in 46 runs. Ruggiano is under club control through 2016.
The Cubs have also improved their bullpen with two key free-agent signings. Last season, James Russell was the only LHP in the Cubs’ bullpen for the vast majority of the season. The Cubs recently signed veteran left-hander Wesley Wright. Wright, a six-year veteran of the Houston Astros and Rays, is under club control through 2015.
After a shaky start to his career, Wright has compiled ERA’s of 1.50, 3.27, and 3.69 the last three seasons pitching exclusively out of the bullpen. Even more impressive, Wright has held left-handed hitters to a .231 batting average, .313 OBP and .342 slugging percentage. His strikeout to walk ratio against left-handed hitters is an exceptional 3.11.
Wright has struggled against right-handed hitters, so it will be imperative for new Cubs’ manager Rick Renteria to define his role very narrowly unless pitching coach Chris Bosio can help Wright, 28, achieve greater balance in his pitching results.
Finally, the Cubs inked Wright’s former teammate, RH relief pitcher Jose Veras, 33, to a one year deal with a team option for 2015. He will compete for the Cubs’ closer position in Spring Training. Over eight seasons, Veras has pitched for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brewers, Astros and Tigers. Last year with the Astros, Veras took on a leadership role with a young rebuilding squad before being dealt to the Tigers.
The big right-hander produced a 3.02 ERA, saving 21 games in 25 attempts. In 62.2 innings, he walked 22 and fanned 60, producing an exceptional WHIP of 1.069. For his career, Veras has notched 388 strikeouts in 377 innings and allowed only 300 hits. His control can be spotty at times, as evidenced by his 194 career walks. If he can duplicate last year’s numbers, the majority of which were produced while pitching for the Astros, who play in a hitter-friendly venue, Veras will be an excellent addition to the Cubs’ bullpen.
The Cubs’ offseason is probably not complete. However, when the minor moves they have made to date are evaluated in totality, the tree in the forest will certainly make a loud sound even if no one is present to hear it.
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